Old-style racing at my first national tour. “Let’s see,” I thought before packing my bags to compete in what would be the longest bike race of my life. “There are eight days, so I’d better take four pairs of shorts and three or four racing jerseys. It will probably rain, being Ireland, so two pairs of shoes and six pairs of socks should be enough. Braces [that’s suspenders for Americans] for holding up the wool shorts. Spare shoelaces. Racing cap and leather [hairnet] helmet. Track mitts [gloves]. Spare tires and puncture-repair outfit. Various spanners [wrenches] and a screwdriver. Spare block [freewheel cassette] and remover tool. And the race instructions say I need to fit a bell on the handlebars….”
WORDS: JOHN WILCOCKSON
ILLUSTRATIONS: MATTHEW BURTON

That’s what I needed for my trip to the third annual, revived Tour of Ireland organized by the Irish Cycling federation in 1968. As the assistant editor of Britain’s first full-color cycling magazine, International Cycle Sport, I’d spent more time in the previous six months reporting on pro races in Europe than taking part in the occasional amateur road race back home in England. But for the average British club rider the Irish tour presented a rare chance to ride a true weeklong stage race, while for the Irish amateurs it was one of their few opportunities of competing against an international field. I was one of the “internationals.”

My adventure began at London’s Heathrow Airport, the evening before the race started in Dublin on an August Sunday. Thankfully, my bike and suitcase weighed in at exactly 20 kilos (44 pounds), so no excess charges; but as I was sitting in the overcrowded departure lounge came an unwelcome announcement: “British European Airways wish to announce that flight number 873 to Dublin will be delayed half an hour because of operational difficulties.” That meant it was dark when the packed Vanguard airplane touched down at Dublin Airport, set in green farmland even though it’s only 5 miles from the city center.

Waiting outside the terminal with their bikes, spare wheels and suitcases were two top English racers from Liverpool, Doug Dailey and Dave Mitchell, both old hands at the Tour of Ireland. With all the city shuttle buses packed full, they had despaired of getting into town, but the tall, bronzed Dailey spotted a taxi and the three of us managed to shoehorn our bikes, bags and bodies inside….

Looking for a room at 11 o’clock at night in the back streets of Dublin wasn’t a memorable experience, but we found a cheap boarding house in a brick-terraced back street where our bikes were safely stored before we spent the night on low, board-hard beds. A skimpy breakfast wasn’t the best fuel for the opening 100-plus-mile stage, but the sun was shining as I pedaled down to O’Connell Street, with a duffle bag on my back and suitcase balanced on the handlebars, and soon found the race headquarters at the Adelphi Cinema.

Cleaners were busy at work out front but all the business was taking place in back. I went down a side alley to find a mob of bike racers having their machines checked for safety (including the bell!) as they prepared labels for their bags, and signed on to get their race numbers and road books. After buying some bananas and Mars bars to make up for that bare-bones breakfast, I loaded my luggage into one of the advance baggage vans and then went to sit in the sunshine with two guys I knew from races in southeast England. Geoff Wiles, a stage winner at the 1967 Tour of Britain Milk Race, said he was there for “a working holiday” and Graham Jones said he was feeling jaded from a hard week of racing in Ghent, Belgium.

We were shaken into life by loudspeaker vans blaring the message: “This is the eight-day Tour of Ireland cycle race with international riders from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.” And within moments we were on our way, with a motley fleet of vehicles leading the way for the 129-man peloton in a noisy, chaotic exit up the crowd-lined O’Connell Street for 3 miles of neutralized riding. The hubbub stopped as quickly as it began when we reached the John F. Kennedy stadium at Santry for the start proper. All the traffic stopped in both directions, the amplifiers were silenced and an east wind coming in off the Irish Sea could be heard rustling the leaves in roadside trees…a calm before the storm.

The flag was dropped and “British international Geoffrey Wiles,” in the green-and-orange colors of his Medway Velo club, was soon bobbing away off the front. The pace didn’t slacken as we headed north along the wide-open stretches of Trunk Road No. 1. A short uphill drag out of Drogheda made the line stretch for the first time, and then the first prime climb was tackled—just an easy grade. Gaps began to appear on the descent, but being a good-natured race, the riders decided to sit up and munch on the bananas, orange segments and sugar lumps we had stuffed in our rear pockets. There were still 70 miles to go to the stage finish in Monaghan, but Geoff, who’d be my roommate for the week, decided this was an opportune time to go up the road again, this time with a half-dozen others. It looked like the winning move when their lead quickly grew to two minutes.

At the back there were three pileups within the space of 15 miles, the first one the most serious, with nearly 20 riders coming down on a narrow, twisting section of road between high hedgerows. I managed to avoid falling, but it meant a short, hard chase to regain the bunch. After Dundalk came the most scenic climb yet, snaking between pine trees, with rocky outcroppings above. We then crossed the border into Northern Ireland and descended rapidly into Newry. The route was much more undulating as we headed for Armagh—where my unfit legs caught up with me. When I crossed the line some 40 miles later, alone and lanterne rouge (seven others had quit the race) my muddied mind translated the airline announcement from the night before to: “ICS Airlines wishes to announce that their rider number 111 from Dublin has been delayed half an hour because of operational difficulties.”

On reaching the Hillside Guest House of Mrs. Monaghan in Monaghan I learned from Geoff that his breakaway also had some “operational difficulties”—they’d been caught with 25 miles left. He said that another group then went away, and with the majority of the largely inexperienced field feeling the effects of the heat and distance, they were three minutes clear by the finish line. Irish star Peter Doyle—only 22 and already a double stage winner at the Tour of Britain—won the stage with a powerful uphill sprint ahead of Englishman Roger Hobby, with two local Ulstermen, Morris Foster and Dave Kane, just behind.

In the big, well-edited race program it stated that Monaghan is “the chicken capital of Ireland,” and, de-dah, the main course of Mrs. Monaghan’s dinner was our first roast chicken of the week. That town must have quite an influence on the country’s eating habits as chicken was also on the dinner menu in the upcoming stage towns of Birr, Limerick, Fermoy, Clonmel and Dungarvan—with the final treat at Dublin’s official race dinner, when it was chicken and ham!

I soon fell into the routine of stage-race life, and after dinner it was upstairs for a rest, then out back to clean our bikes and check the tires, followed by a stroll down to the food shops (they never seemed to close in Ireland) to stock up for the next day’s stage. We then had supper at Tommies Restaurant. Geoff ordered a salad while I had liver, and we both had our first taste of delicious Irish soda bread and butter!

Another 112 miles [180 kilometers] was on our race menu for the second day, virtually flat all the way to Birr. This was a curious stage, with Doyle, the brand-new yellow jersey, making a seemingly suicidal attack at the drop of the flag with a few others. And when sizeable groups clipped off the front in the second half of the stage, Doyle and his companions, who never had more than two minutes’ lead, were quickly absorbed. So a weary Doyle could offer little challenge when successful counterattacks developed, with the unassuming Kane from Northern Ireland taking over the lead after finishing with stage winner Liam Horner, 1:47 ahead of Doyle.

Again, I found the distance a bit too far for my out-of-condition legs, lasting for 100 miles this time. But I did discover how easy it was to regain the bunch after trouble: one of my spokes snapped descending a narrow lane, and Andy’s service vehicle had given me a wheel as soon as I stopped. The line of official following vehicles was remarkably long, and a half-mile of turning my top gear of 52×14 saw me back in front of race director John Lackey’s green van and tagging onto the back of the peloton.

This part of Ireland reminded me distinctly of France with the quiet roads, lonely countryside with its isolated farmsteads and castles, and the crowds of enthusiastic spectators in each little town and village. Birr itself was typical, with old stone-built houses and virtually no modern structures. Racing into Limerick the next day was certainly not like French cycling, with the peloton having to contend with buses, cars and trucks as well as other riders in the chaotic finishing sprint. Fortunately a seven-strong break finished three minutes in front, with my taxi-companion Doug Dailey snatching the main street sprint from Doyle, who regained the overall lead.

Doyle confirmed his capabilities on this stage by shaking off the whole field up the steep hill at Portroe, 30 miles into the stage, with an incredible acceleration. We had no time to admire the wonderful views over the blue waters of Lough Derg because that’s when the chase after Doyle was at its fiercest. The Irish Olympian won the battle and bridged to an early six-up break by Killaloe, where the course changed direction into a headwind on the other side of the lake.

The scenery was delightful here. An ancient narrow stone bridge of 19 arches crossed the clear waters of the Shannon canal; yachts and motorboats graced a small harbor bordered by whitewashed taverns; and pine trees covered the steep slopes of surrounding hills. We were left admiring the view when the break disappeared into the twisting narrow back roads that circled the Slieve Bernagh mountain range before finally heading into Limerick.

After a two-hour break the only time trial of the 1968 Tour of Ireland got under way in bright sunshine on Dock Road overlooking the Shannon. Starting order was the reverse of the morning’s G.C. table so I was first man to test the course. It was reputed to be 6 miles but was probably nearer 5—unlike most of the other stage distances, which were invariably far longer than advertised. The TT’s first 3 miles were flat and straight along a concrete road to a cement works at Mungret. The wind changed from cross- to tailwind for 200 yards, and then a mile along a bumpy link road took us to the main road and a brute of a headwind all the way to the finish. I was a respectable halfway down the result sheet with a time of 13:05, while five men managed to get inside 12 minutes, with Doyle winning from Lawton, Foster and Dailey.

The sun was shining the next morning as we left the busy streets of Limerick with a strong tailwind. The road was flat and straight and the consequent fast pace meant that no break could gain much ground. The yellow-jerseyed Doyle made sure this was so by riding at the front of the bunch, keeping a high tempo. The story was the same for 60 miles until a group of 20 or so forged a small lead on a rapid descent into the city of Cork. The 22 miles from here to the Fermoy finish were much more undulating and the change in direction meant they were into a blustery headwind. Although the leaders were never out of sight along the straight, wide road, the wind deterred all attempts at chasing, and danger men Dailey and Kane took full advantage of the situation to leave the front group with two others and gain 50 seconds in the last 5 miles.

The halfway point in the Tour had now been reached and only 20 riders were within 10 minutes of leader Doyle; the main challengers were Kane, Dailey and Foster, respectively 1:25, 1:48 and 4:10 back. The most popular danger man was still Geoff Wiles, although he was now in 16th place, 8:24 down. Whenever the Englishman made a move at the front there was sure to be an immediate reaction from the rest, so he was resigned to the fact and told me over dinner that evening: “It’s not worth flogging myself unless I can get away alone, and the race hasn’t been hard enough for that yet.”

It would perhaps be hard enough the next day. The direct road from Fermoy down the Blackwater valley to the sea at Dungarvan is 30 miles long, but it would be 120 on the Tour of Ireland route, split into two stages, with the first real climbing of the Tour reserved for that evening’s race. A cool mist still hung over the trout-filled waters of the Blackwater as we prepared to leave from the main square in Fermoy, with the official announcements barely disturbing the morning tranquility. The first shafts of sunlight came through as we started, but nobody was overly keen on making efforts along the first stretch of wide main road to Mitchelstown. After a long uphill to the Glocca Maura Inn, the whole peloton of 110 riders was intact. This stage proved to be the slowest of the week, only 23.8 miles per hour, while the average speed of the whole race would be exactly 25 miles per hour.

There was another long drag after entering the back roads in Mitchelstown that gave access to a superb view down the wide Glen of Aherlow toward the 3,000-foot Galty Mountains. The somnolent feeling of the bunch was emphasized a few miles later when a donkey cart joined the race. We were riding steadily along a narrow road, with low grass-covered banks on either side, when the gaunt-looking animal took fright, unseated the driver and galloped along in the middle of the bunch with some battered milk churns rattling on the cart. Those at the front turned to see what all the commotion was about. And by the time I passed the donkey it looked so exhausted it was no longer a danger!

The pace fluctuated after that incident as we passed through Tipperary and Caher until a group of nine took a marginal lead, with the big, rugged Foster towing the break into Clonmel a half-minute up, putting him within 2:37 of Doyle on GC. My personal overall deficit was closer to 2:37:00…so I decided to become JW (photojournalist) instead of JW (fatigued cyclist) and took to the back of a motor scooter for what proved to be the most interesting and hardest stage so far.

At Clonmel, the local organizers gave everyone a bottle of cider at the army barracks, where the riders showered before starting the evening stage. That was followed by the week’s third official race meal and a two-hour break when riders lay around the Ormond Hotel or sat outside in the warm sunshine.

When the stage got underway at 4.30 p.m., there were immediate attacks; but the front groups came together by the 1,300-foot summit of the impressive 5-mile climb of The Vee. Geoff, my roommate, now took the race into his own hands, showing the experience of racing two Peace Races and the Tour de l’Avenir, as he expertly negotiated the tricky, winding descent, accelerating where others were braking. By the bottom, in a deep, wooded valley, he had made a decisive gap. He piled on the pressure on the sharp drag out of Lismore, and 5 miles later he was two minutes clear, with Doyle vainly trying to whip up a chase.

Geoff was riding into the unknown, because the stage distance was officially stated as 55 miles, but it turned out to be far longer…. So he had some doubts when he reached the sea near Youghal, after a long downhill. There should have been just 6 miles left, but the signposts said 16, and those miles were all into a headwind. Even so, Geoff showed both courage and class to finish more than two minutes ahead of the chasers, while the Doyle group was three minutes back. His stage win moved Geoff up to fifth place, 4:09 down.

Small groups of riders were still arriving 45 minutes later, long after the big Dungarvan crowd had seen the presentation of the victory bouquets. There was still a large crowd assembled an hour later when a 20-mile criterium for local riders and Tour dropouts was held in the falling dusk. The first five finishers all received trophies at midnight at the Cycle Race Ball—I was glad I didn’t have to worry about getting a good night’s sleep!

This Tour of Ireland 82-mile eighth stage to Gorey kept to an undulating and twisting main road via Waterford, New Ross and Enniscorthy, and was ridden into a strong headwind. When an early 15-man move looked like going clear, Geoff spotted the danger and shot from the bunch, dropping Doyle, his Irish shadow, with a top-gear effort on a slight rise and quickly making it 16 riders up front. Once there, he immediately stepped up the pace and by New Ross the breakaway was four minutes clear and Geoff was the virtual yellow jersey.

Behind, Doyle was left isolated trying to keep the pace up, and small groups were taking up the chase—and for the second time in the week Doyle looked like a drowning man. The lead leveled off at five-and-a-half minutes, but it was clear that the majority of the riders in the break were not pulling their weight, so when the course opened out onto a broad highway in the last 16 miles the position looked far less secure for Geoff. Doyle found allies in Dailey and Foster and their spirited chase reduced the final deficit to 3:25. The stage winner’s oneminute bonus would have still given Geoff the race lead, but Irish fortune now smiled on Doyle. Just as stage winner Mick Wishart made his successful jump on the drop down to the main-street finish, Geoff was brought down by another rider, crashed heavily and had to run to the finish, losing 30 seconds.

With only two days left, Geoff was up to third, only 1:14 down on Doyle. That night, after being a racer for six stages and reporter for two more, I took on my third job of the week:

Geoff’s unofficial masseur. I’d seen several soigneurs at work on the legs of riders I’d interviewed over the past couple of seasons, and so I did my best to imitate them. “Not bad” was Geoff’s verdict. But I couldn’t help him much with the cuts and bruises he’d sustained in his finish-line crash. Those injuries kept him from chasing a break made by Doyle, Dailey, Foster and a dozen others early in the next day’s stage to Kilkenny; he was further handicapped by a broken toe clip and a puncture, and finished in the main bunch, six minutes down.

The final day comprised a flat 74-mile road stage into Dublin and an afternoon criterium: 15 laps of a 2-mile circuit in the city’s Phoenix Park. The crit, watched by a Sunday afternoon crowd of several thousand, added to Geoff’s woes—after winning the first lap sprint prize he got a pedal through his rear wheel and lost almost two minutes before he could restart. Chasing alone, he conceded a further two minutes and dropped six places. Not his day; but my Liverpool friend Doug Dailey was second in the mass-sprint finish to cop a 30-second time bonus that lifted him into second overall.

The race was over. Ninety-seven riders had stayed the course, and Peter Doyle had proved a popular winner of a memorable Tour of Ireland. The publicity given to the race would make any race organizer envious. With detailed stories in the national press, interviews and commentaries on the radio every night, and short, filmed reports on television, the Irish Cycling Federation could feel proud of its workmanlike organization.

Besides this professional-like efficiency—finding beds for more than a hundred racers at the often-tiny stage towns took some doing!—the 1968 Tour of Ireland was a truly amateur race. Every rider and official paid his own way, and at the official after-race dinner hard-working race secretary Steve Lawless showed just how fine was the shoestring that kept the event in existence, when he revealed: “At the start of the year there was only £100 in the kitty, and now, with everything over and paid for, there is £100 left to start on next year’s race!”

POSTSCRIPT: Despite his phenomenal talents, Peter Doyle never turned professional and stopped racing at age 30; Doug Dailey was twice British road champion and won the Tour of Ireland in an amateur career that spanned 26 years before he became the national coach and later logistics manager for British Cycling; and Geoff Wiles won the British national road title in a 12-year pro career before opening a bike shop and helping BMX racing get established in Great Britain.

Wilcockson on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

From issue 62.